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Annie Hayes

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Will new legislation really change the way businesses approach age discrimination?

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Jobless - Photo Central Audiovisual Library, European Commission
Richard Marlin, Public Sector Contracts Manager for recruitment outfit Angela Mortimer explains why employers that continue to recruit for ‘young’ and ‘energetic’ staff post-October will wind themselves up in the dock.



UK employers face a major challenge from new laws aimed at stamping out age discrimination in the workplace.
From 1st October 2006, it will be discriminatory to ask a job applicant for their age, or specify an age in a recruitment advertisement.

Organisations will also be required to train managers to avoid stereotypes, such as the assumption that older workers are coasting into retirement, and last in first out policies will also need to be reviewed. Some alarmists have even suggested that the use of language such as ‘young’ and ‘energetic’ in advertisements could be considered illegal. These laws will force us all to take a long, hard look at our recruitment policies; but will it bring a radical mind shift in the workplace?

By 2025, more than a third of the UK’s population will be over 55 years old, but the demographic of the workforce is already changing. The number of workers aged under 35 is falling, with the fastest decreases among those aged 18-24. The number of people aged 50 and over has increased significantly in recent years and as the CBI’s director of human resources Susan Anderson points out the new laws will, “cement changes already well under way in UK workplaces.”

Businesses are already starting to adapt; we have to because there is no escaping the fact that we are a fast ageing population; but there is still a long way to go.

Recent research for Age Concern by the University of Kent showed that age is the most common grounds for discrimination in the UK. Twenty-nine per cent of respondents said they had experienced it, compared with 24% who cited gender, the next most prevalent.

A report published on 16 August 2006 by the Trades Union Congress also showed that one in three unemployed 50-63 year olds wants to work but cannot find employment. The report also warns that government plans to tackle the problem by raising the state pension age will simply push more people onto benefits, unless employers stop discriminating and start adopting ‘age management’ strategies to retrain the over 50s.

Soon all companies will be banned from forcing workers to retire before the age of 65 so it would make sense for us to all to see these laws as a starting point for change and to ensure that our working practices equally support older and younger workers.

There is additional pressure of employment tribunals. In the US and Ireland where such laws have been introduced, this resulted in a wave of costly claims – the US experienced a 40% increase in claims, with ageism cases increasing more quickly than any other form of discrimination claim. In Ireland, age is now the basis of 19% of all employment cases.

Getting it wrong could prove not just costly, but could cripple a small UK business, but as Susan Anderson highlights these new laws should not be seen as “carte blanche for aggrieved employees” and equally they shouldn’t simply be adhered to by businesses to avoid fines, but rather encourage a cultural change and shift in working practices to ensure all staff are treated equally regardless of their age.

No business wants to be sued and as a professional recruitment company, we are in the same boat as everyone else. If I look around our offices, the majority of workers are in their 20s and 30s and the recruitment industry tends to attracts graduates who are trained into the role. So we will be under the same pressure as everyone else to ensure that we are encouraging diversity in our own workplace, as well as ensuring that we provide the very best skilled candidates for our clients, regardless of their age.

That is not to say there won’t be challenges. Clients often ask us to provide shortlists which would in October be discriminatory – they specify they want candidates between certain ages or that they have a young team and want someone who ‘fits into’ their culture.

We will have to tread more carefully than ever before. However, this shouldn’t be a problem for professional recruitment consultants who as a matter of course carefully match a candidate to a client based on the candidate’s skills, experience and ability to perform job, rather than their age. If we are asked for a 25 year old and a 23 year old or 42 year old both have the skills required for the job, the consultants should be recommending to their clients that they should see both of them.

Any professional recruitment company will already screen candidates and conduct in-depth interviews to ascertain their skills and equally take full briefs from clients to ensure they fully understand their business needs and the skills required for the role in question regardless of age and this will become more critical than ever before.

But in terms of whether or not these laws will really impact business, they will. Let’s hope however, that they don’t encourage a barrage of legal cases but rather initiate a shift in our cultural mindset and truly eliminate negative stereotypes and attitudes to age which are still prevalent in the UK workforce.

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Annie Hayes

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